Teaching Legal English

What is legal English?

Do you really know what legal English is?

Legal English is, probably, not what you think it is. As an English teacher of 5/6 years experience, I thought I knew what legal English was; however, it was only when I started to work in-house as a proofreader and teacher that I quickly discovered that I was wrong. Very wrong. This post goes into a little more detail about how legal English changed for me, and hopefully, it might help you understand legal English a little bit better.

My definition of legal English now is: “the English which a lawyer uses to communicate appropriately to an audience, so that the audience can understand the lawyer correctly, and make a well-informed decision, or be persuaded as to the lawyer’s argument.”

My definition of legal English when I started teaching legal English was: “Legal words which a lawyer needs to do their job.”

Legal English is misunderstood

There are huge differences between the two definitions, and in the two definitions, you can see how legal English is misunderstood.

The first definition is supported by typical legal English textbooks on the market, which commonly follow a pattern similar to this:

  • learn new vocabulary / test a language skill,
  • do the supporting exercise,
  • are you right/wrong?
  • do the next exercise.

This method suggests that a lawyer just needs language acquisition, to practice that, repeat that, and continue. Sadly, this does not reflect what legal English looks like in practice. It misunderstands the goal of legal English.

What is the goal of Legal English?

There are two goals based on what Legal English experts have said and that practice has shown:

Legal English is primarily about writing.

Bryan Garner (Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and expert in Legal English) said that 90% of a lawyer’s job is to write. If so, you would expect legal English textbooks to reflect this. Are 90% of the language exercises in legal English textbooks writing exercises? If 90% is unreasonable (can you imagine teaching that book?), are 60% of them writing exercises? Of course not.

Legal English is about effective communication.

The writing has to achieve a goal – a goal which focuses on the client, not to provide a platform for the lawyer to show off their writing skills. Do any legal English textbooks teach what effective communication is?

In-house, I got a nasty surprise when I tried to teach practising young lawyers using a legal English coursebook. Picture, if you can, the look of disgust on the faces of my students as I opened chapter 1 of the ILEC coursebook! It took me a long time to work out how I could legal English, and in doing so, understand what legal English really means.

Why my new definition of Legal English is better than my old definition.

My definition is made up of a number of important parts which reflect what I have learned when teaching legal English – allow me to break it down.

The English which a lawyer uses to communicate appropriately to an audience…

The key element here is being able to identify “appropriate communication” based on the audience the lawyer is communicating with. It is not appropriate for a lawyer to use English to deliberately confuse, or to show off their language skills. Rather, it is appropriate to adjust your English to make sure your audience understands it. These are two news stories, here and here, about judges who ruled in a way teenagers could understand what was happening. Similarly, this part of the definition also allows a lawyer to change the English they use if writing to other lawyers / legal professionals; as then, more complex legal language might then be appropriate.

This part of the definition gives me a practical understanding of who the most important party in legal communication is – the reader, not the writer – the lawyer.

… so that the audience can understand the lawyer correctly, …

Two things here: 1) the audience understands what the English says (and is a result of the point above), and 2) that it is understood correctly. ‘Correctly’ means that the reader understands precisely and accurately what the lawyer is writing about. This means that there is no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Poorly written legal English allows for plenty of misunderstanding – thousands of court cases which are based on how to understand legal texts in contracts / Ts&Cs etc are testament to this.

This part of the definition focuses on how effective legal English communication should be. It should communicate a lawyer’s message in exactly the way that they intend it to be understood.

… and make a well-informed decision, or be persuaded as to the lawyer’s argument.

A well written legal text allows a client to make a clear decision having understood all aspects clearly. A well written legal text which is easy to read, and is logical and coherent, is more persuasive than complex legalese that requires effort to understand it. That’s not just my opinion; it’s the opinion of clients and judges.

This part of the definition focuses on why a lawyer is writing and that the reader can make a decision with all necessary background, or a judge can be persuaded by the lawyer’s argument and rule in thier favour.

Concluding comments: What happens if you have no definition of Legal English?

If you are new to teaching legal English, then the textbooks and the experience you have of law will shape your definition for you. However, as discussed above, and in other posts, I would ask you to think beyond the textbook to think about what legal English actually is. By being aware of this and teaching legal English in the context in which it is actually used, you’ll give the student value and build your authority in the classroom.

Saying that, textbooks certainly have their place – I go discuss with whom you would use one in this post. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that writing is a mainstay of a legal English course, and that the writing must achieve the goals I outlined above. The question is, how can you focus on writing in a legal English context and not kill your class! I’ll delve into that topic in a future post 🙂

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